Scottie (James Stewart) is trying to cure himself of the title affliction, recently discovered during a rooftop chase in which his fear of heights resulted in the death of a fellow officer. So, impatient with his recovery, he gingerly mounts the three steps of the ladder, looks up, looks down, looks up and looks down again, then collapses into the arms of his college friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who always seems ready to catch him when he falls.
Fifty years and two days ago, at a preview in San Francisco, moviegoers looked up at the screen and saw “Vertigo” for the first time, and maybe some of them looked down too in confusion or dismay, wondering, as in a dream, where they were and how they had gotten there and how they would make it back to safer ground.
With “Vertigo” you never know. It’s a movie that — even if you know that it will always end the same way, tragically — never takes you to that inevitable conclusion by the same route. You feel as if you are wandering, which is the word Scottie and the object of his desire, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), use to describe their days.
Neither, actually, is quite as purposeless as that sounds. Madeleine is chasing the ghost of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, and Scottie is tailing Madeleine, a private-eye job he’s doing as a favor for another old college chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who is her husband. But it’s a desultory sort of surveillance, which turns gradually and with a mysterious inexorability into something else: a love story in which Scottie and Madeleine wander together, pursuing the past and running, with all deliberate speed, from themselves.
You can’t help wondering what those first Bay Area viewers 50 years ago must have thought as they watched this strange, drifty, hallucinatory romance unfold on the big screen, with the strains of Bernard Herrmann’s lush score — brazenly echoing the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” — swelling on the soundtrack. It wasn’t what they had come to expect from Hitchcock, the beloved portly “master of suspense,” who had been making impishly macabre thrillers for 30-some years and had since 1955 also been the host and impresario of a very popular mystery-story anthology series on television.
“Vertigo” — based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the authors of “Diabolique” — features one murder and two other deaths, but it isn’t built like an ordinary suspense film. Its only action sequence is the first scene, that rooftop chase. The detective never really investigates the movie’s lone murder because he doesn’t know until just before the end that one has been committed; the killer is not brought to justice.
And Hitchcock doesn’t content himself simply with violating genre conventions. He seems determined to unsettle every reasonable expectation — anything that could give us a footing in the shifty, unstable world he’s creating before our eyes.
A couple of years later he notoriously killed off his lead actress in the first 40 minutes of “Psycho,” but that is only marginally more perverse than what he does with Kim Novak in “Vertigo”: in the first third of the picture, when Scottie is following her, she has precisely one close-up and not a single line of dialogue. And in the movie’s final third, every supporting character drops off the screen, leaving Mr. Stewart and Ms. Novak to work out their characters’ awful fate alone. Along the way Hitchcock also throws in a bizarre, partly animated dream sequence and a startling scene in which, as the lovers kiss, the camera pans 360 degrees around them and the background changes from a small hotel room to the stables of an old Spanish mission, where they had kissed once before. You never do know quite where you are in “Vertigo.”
The film wasn’t a hit in its initial release, and it wasn’t enthusiastically reviewed either. But its stature has increased exponentially in its five decades of screen life, especially in the 12 years since its brilliant restoration by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz; it now routinely places in the Top 10 in critics’ and viewers’ polls of the greatest movies ever made.
For a movie so revered, “Vertigo” hasn’t been terribly influential. The films that try hardest to recapture its twisted, doomy romanticism, like Brian De Palma’s 1976 “Obsession” (with a score by Mr. Herrmann) and Mike Figgis’s 1991 “Liebestraum” (in which Ms. Novak plays a supporting role), always wind up proving that Hitchcock’s dark vision is too wayward, too eccentric to be imitated: there’s never enough wandering in them.
And in a way the wandering is all that matters when you’re watching “Vertigo,” for the first time or the 10th or — like the fictional correspondent of Chris Marker’s beautiful essay-film “Sans Soleil” (1982) — the 19th. This movie isn’t constructed, as most thrillers are, to get us from point A to point B as swiftly and as efficiently as possible. “Vertigo” instead circles compulsively around a set of visual and verbal (and musical) motifs — spirals, towers, bouquets, the words “too late” — which keep bringing us back to the same places, turning us in relentlessly on ourselves. There’s a wonderful scene in which Scottie follows Madeleine through the dizzying streets of San Francisco to his own home. He looks puzzled, utterly disoriented, and the viewer knows exactly how he feels.
Seeing “Vertigo” on DVD is maybe a shade less overwhelming, less deranging, than seeing it as its first audience did, but it has the compensating quality of seeming a more solitary and more intimate experience, and this is, always has been, a movie that makes you want to be alone with it. It’s like Scottie’s surveillance of Madeleine: he watches from a distance, then there’s no distance at all, just him and her, no one else around. Jean-Luc Godard once described the difference between cinema and television as the difference between raising your eyes to the movie screen and lowering them to the TV screen. Whether you look up at “Vertigo” or look down, the effect is the same: You fall and hope that somebody’s there to catch you.